Saturday, 18 June 2011

How the Beach Boys stayed great even after America lost faith

Okay, there is no excuse for this posting, except that it’s been a rather irritating few days, and I need to indulge in some truly mindless fun. And when I need my spirits lifting, the nerdy blokes in the stripy shirts never fail me.

The Beach Boys have always been one of my favourite groups. Yes, Mike Love is a prat (especially when dancing or talking) and Brian Wilson has been a complete fruit loop for over 40 years and their various clothes and haird-dos over the decades stand as a monument to really execrable taste – but the music always acts as a tonic, and I love it. From the first time I heard“Surfin’ Safari” as a ten-year old, I’ve preferred the Boys to, say, The Beatles – still do. I suppose what I feel for them is affection as much as anything else - and, as they’ve grown fatter and balder and weirder (and deader) that sense of affection hasn’t diminished. I don’t feel sorry for them, exactly, but I admire the way they’ve battled through seemingly endless - albeit often self-created - setbacks.

Of course, back in 1966, when they released Pet Sounds and the singles, “God Only Knows”, “Good Vibrations”, “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (Lord, what a quartet!) they were suddenly one of the coolest bands on the planet, well placed to become one of the Colossi of the Summer of Love. But by the time that rolled round a year later, they were on the slide, especially in the States, where their fall from grace was even more dramatic than over here. 

1967 saw the release of that glorious single, “Heroes and Villains” (my absolute favourite) – and there were other hits to follow in subsequent years (“Do It Again” and “Cottonfields”, for example) - but the two albums released in ’67 (Smiley Smile and Wild Honey) were patchy and uneven and, in parts, quite bonkers. By the end of the year, the Boys were about as cool as a forest fire, but just as effective at making people run away screaming. The reason’s not hard to identify – Brian Wilson, while trying to produce Smile, supposedly his answer to Sergeant Pepper, had descended into a massive and extended nervous breakdown, brought on by the effects of overwork and more drugs than Colombia exports in an average year on an already fragile psyche.

Despite that, of the eight albums they released between 1968 and 1977, three were stone classics, and two others weren’t too dusty. That’s a better strike rate than any band of the last twenty years, as far as I’m aware – and all done in a blizzard of drugs, a whirlpool of alcohol, a Fight Club of vicious infighting, and with their leader and main creative force totally off his nut. 

My favourite amongst these albums was 1970’s Sunflower, which managed to reach 151 in the US Charts (as Ike Turner remarked when “River Deep, Mountain High” failed to chart in the States, “maybe Benedict Arnold was right”). It’s a glorious record, including, as it does,  Brian Wilson’s beautiful hymn to his natural medium, “Add Some Music To Your Day”, and the slightly rockier “This Whole World”. With big brother Brian otherwise largely AWOL, drummer Dennis proved he was several cuts above Ringo by writing and performing “Slip On Through”, the soul-tinged “Got to Know the Woman”, and co-writing the wistful “Forever”. Even Bruce Johnston chipped in with the delighful Frenchified ballad, “Tears in the Morning”. I played the album to death at the time.

1971’s Surf’s Up featured one of Brian Wilson’s greatest productions, the achingly poignant, depressive masterpiece, “‘Til I Die”, the lovely, intriguing “Surf’s Up”, complete with superbly pretentious lyrics supplied by Van Dyke Parks (“columnated ruins domino” indeed!), Al Jardine’s nostalgia-fest, “Disney Girls” , and the extremely silly “Take a Load off Your Feet”.

The next classic was 1973’s Holland (so-called because it was recorded). Brian Wilson (and four others) produced one of the  Beach Boys’ most blissfully perfect tracks – “Sail On Sailor”, while Mike Love came up with the cheerful, sing-along summertime classic,  “California Saga/Big Sur”. Dennis Wilson co-wrote the evocative “Steamboat”, and even fat brother Carl came up with the terrific “The Trader” (with the false start left in). Best album of the year, according to “Whispering” Bob Harris, and when was he ever wrong? It managed to get to No. 20 in the UK album charts, while in America it wheezed its way up to 36. (I blame Nixon.)

1976’s 15 Big Ones was hardly vintage stuff, but it featured a great, old-fashioned Brian Wilson/Mike Love collaboration, “It’s OK”, a toe-tapping cover of the Freddie Cannon classic, “Palisades Park” and Al Jardine’s terrific rocker, “Susie Cincinnati”. 

1977 saw the release of Beach Boys Love You. It’s Brian Wilson’s favourite group album, but that might be because it saw him more involved and less deranged than he had been in years. Stand-out tracks are Al Jardine’s “Honkin’ Down the Highway” (or, as the song has it: “honkin’ down the gosh-darned highway”) and a rocking Dennis/Brian collaboration, “Mona”.

If you stuck the best tracks from 15 Big Ones and Love You together on one platter, you’d have a fourth post-Beach Boys Golden Age classic.

After that – nothing, really. I bought all of Brian Wilson’s subsequent solo albums and tried to pretend they represented a return to form. But the truth is, I never play them. 

I’m usually very dismissive of the music produced by artists past their peak, but so much of the material the chaps came up with after they became terminally unfashionable is just so strong, I can’t help doffing my cap.

The Americans partly made up for spurning their erstwhile heroes post-1966 by turning them into a national institution as a live act - but I’m still not forgiving the ungrateful bastards!


  1. I find Brian Wilson's frequent appearances here with the Wondermints or whatever they are called desperately sad. I have to switch over because their talent night karaoke versions of the great BB hits, with Brian hiding behind a piano he doesn't play, spoil my enjoyment of the originals.

    I still remember where I was when I heard Good Vibrations for the first time. As you ask, in a car outside St John's Church, Belmont, waiting to sing Evensong. As a lover of harmony singing who had rushed out to buy every single from Get Around onwards and loved the goofy surfer songs about cars and girls, (as well as being a pretentious little oik) I couldn't believe how any one other than Thomas Tallis could have scored anything as beautiful.

    One minor bit of the Wilson oeuvre that is often overlooked is the album his first wife Marilyn's group made, produced by BW. I think it's called American Spring and even though she is not a great singer it has some cracking tunes and great arrangements.
    Sunday, June 19, 2011 - 05:52 PM

  2. I so agree! I caught Brian Wilson on (I think) Jools Holland’s show a couple of weeks back, and it was awful! When it came to Good Vibrations, he held his arms out in front of him and started waggling them, like some bewildered captive in an Old Folks home undergoing Music Therapy. “Well DONE, Brian!” One of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th Century reduced to this? Horrible. As with the Thing That Used to be Kirk Douglas being wheeled out at the Oscars – it’s demeaning and embarrassing and cruel. I switched over sharpish.

    I’ve got the Pet Projects album, featuring his production work with other artists from the 1960s. American Spring’s “Fallin’ in Love” is good, but I prefer the tracks with Sharon Marie – in particular the Spectorish “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You, Baby”, which uses a lot of the melody from the Beach Boys’ hit, “Darlin’” -
    and the up-tempo “Run Around Lover”

    All I could afford early on was their first Greatest Hits compilation in about 1965/66 – every track a classic. When the Boys were on the wain in the early ‘70s, after I’d started buying all their current album releases, their early LPs were re-released (it may very well have been for the first time in the UK), and I bought several from Andy’s Record Stall in Cambridge Market. The absolute best was “Little Deuce Coupe”, featuring “409”, “Shut Down”, “Cherry, Cherry Coupe”, “Be True to Your School” and plenty of other classics which I’d never heard before. I think the obsession with Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations sometimes masks the fact that he was quite brilliant from Day One (the first album, Surfin' Safari, is also great), and went on being (fitfully) brilliant afterwards. What a lot of pleasure he’s given us – and his reward is to be wheeled out and patronised.
    Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - 12:36 PM

  3. My favourite Beach Boys' track was "Kokomo". Then my ex-wife dragged me off to a film called "Cocktail" starring Tom Cruise and I stopped listening to the Beach Boys in case I was reminded of the film
    Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - 04:20 PM

  4. "Jamaica, Bahama, C'mon pretty mama"? Do me a favour SDG!

    Scott, do you think there's anything in my theory that the BBs were not taken seriously by the progressive music crowd and written down by the music press because of the goofy surfing pedigree and their crap LP covers. Has any album in history had a cover less in tune with the content than Pet Sounds? And some friends in the 60s couldn't get past the early songs about girls, cars and waves and listen to the newer stuff without prejudice. It's rather like those people who can't forgive Joni Mitchell for Big Yellow Taxi and have never heard Hejira, Hissing of Summer Lawns and Court and Spark.
    Wednesday, June 22, 2011 - 10:02 PM

  5. I’m tempted to be snotty about Kokomo, and it’s not exactly a classic, but it has a sort of goofy charm to it: The Boys do that to a man. I would need to be paid a huge amount of money to watch “Cocktail”, and I’m not sure even that would persuade me.

    Yes, I do, Ex-KCS. The Beatles were forgiven for their collarless jacket phase, but the Beach Boys went on wearing those striped shirts for far too long for the public to erase the image from their minds. The refusal to ever take a break from touring didn’t help. Also, the fact that Mike Love started going bald at the age of 22, and that he danced like an 80-year with severe haemmhorroids didn’t help. Fatness didn’t help – Carl and Brian were just too porky to be hip (I know the feeling!) And ratty little Al Jardine and square-jawed frat boy Bruce Johnston just looked so straight. Only Dennis Wilson fitted the bill. As you say, “Pet Sounds” had the worst cover of any great rock album. If they’d set out to destroy their credibility, could they have come up with a worse one. Just compare it to “Revolver”, released around the same time! And because they never really bothered much with the UK early on, we only really latched on to them late in the day, so we didn’t grow up with them: one minute it was “Help Me Rhonda” and within an eyeblink it was “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”, which didn’t sit well with the old-fashioned, Brian-less stage act at the time.

    But I’m not sure coolness would have saved them. After all, The Byrds, who were always pretty cool, took a similar career nose-dive at the same time, which has always puzzled me, given that they were the ultimate proto-hippies.

    As for Joni Mitchell, it was heartening to visit an old friend on the Sussex Coast (younger than us) and find that he’s just getting into Joni Mitchell, especially “Blue”. I always had a lot of time for her ever since you (I think it was) bought “Ladies of the Canyon”, which sounds just as beautiful today. For some odd reason, it took me until the late ‘90s to buy all her stuff up to “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. Didin’t quite reach Hejira or the jazzy phase or the brittle cocaine-weird ‘80s stuff generally. Towering figure who’s probably too individual to have received full recognition but strikes me as streets ahead of any other solo female performer of the past 40 years.
    Sunday, June 26, 2011 - 05:14 PM

  6. You're right about Joni's 80s stuff, although there is the occasional flash of brilliance such as Beat of Black Wings on Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. Mingus I find almost unlistenable. However, Night Ride Home and Turbulent Indigo saw her back on form and are well worth checking out if you missed them first time round.

    And yes it was I who tried to convert KCS to Mitchelldom via Ladies of the Canyon with a remarkable lack of success, although I think it was the only non-Bob Dylan record that Stoate ever listened to all the way through.